Tag Archives: STEM

STEM Design Process Simplified

STEM projects can sometimes be challenging to incorporate in the classroom. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending the annual CUE (Computer Using Educators) conference. I learned ideas for projects if a teacher has no budget, a low budget, or if they are fully funded. This proved that there are budget-friendly STEM resources available. Teachers can use project-based STEM books to incorporate activities year round. There are also various websites that students can use to help in the researching process.

Many of the sessions at the CUE Conference were full to bursting, and the “Integrating the T into STEM Design Challenges” session was no different.  The presenter was Cari Williams from the Tustin Unified School District.  She has been designing STEM for years, and focuses on grades 3–5 curriculum design, specifically robotics programs. Here is the simplified Engineering Design Process model Cari uses in the classroom:

STEM Engineering Design Process Simplified

Indentify the Problem

Cari mentioned that in younger classrooms, the teacher would define the problem and give specific instructions. Older students should come up with their own problems to solve.


The students should brainstorm without a computer first, as otherwise they will just find pictures of other peoples’ solutions and will make their design just like what they see.  This limits creativity.


Another creativity piece is to have students draw and/or use other art mediums during their design process, thus incorporating the “A’ in STEAM.  It is important for those students who want to give up and might not otherwise have a lot to show for their project.  At least this way they have this component.

Students can integrate the “T” in STEM by doing research online, and this is where programs such as Haiku, a site where teachers can organize their content online, come in handy. The teacher can set up sites all in one place for them to research.  Another program that helps is Simbaloo, a bookmarking site, or even making a wiki page.

The students then develop ideas by sketching with pencil and paper. (They can move on to CAD programs such as Auto Desk or Google Sketchup, if budget allows.)  They then choose the best idea from their group by creating a survey/decision matrix to vote.  This includes the necessary criteria for the project:  can the project be made by the deadline, which one takes the most expertise, which one has the lowest cost, etc.  This is great not only for teaching about how projects are decided upon in the real world, but it’s also good for teaching social skills.  Some students just want their own project no mater what, and this helps force them to think about it from a group’s point of view.

Build, Test & Evaluate, Redesign & Share Solution

Once the project is decided upon, the students build a model or prototype, and then test and evaluate it.  They must write down their process, and this can be done in journal entries in a notebook or online, or using a program like Excel to organize the different trials, etc.  The students then work on improving the design, and can have an online discussion about it, take photos of it, and graph the results.  They must communicate the results in some way, not just by building the finished product.  They also create a presentation for it at the end.

I really liked how technology was incorporated into each project, even when the budget is smaller.  I think as time goes on, more and more resources will be available to teachers online that will be free to low-cost and immeasurably helpful for integrating STEM in the classroom.

Project-Based Learning for All Grades

Project-based learning is a daunting concept to many, and it can be a lot of work to get started, but boy is it fun!  Take a look at these young learners at the Auburn Early Education Center in Auburn, Alabama and see what I mean.

Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project-Based Learning


Wasn’t that video great!  The students were so engaged and enthusiastic—and so busy DOING!  There is no doubt that many, many teacher hours went in to setting up the activities and guiding students toward learning, but the teachers too, were enthusiastic.  What teacher wouldn’t want to go to work every day if they could blend all subject areas into exciting student-driven projects?  And think of all the standards being met across the curriculum!

Back to the video example of PBL.  Where is the “learning” you say?   Both the cruise ship to Africa and the trip to Brazil by plane required research in the classroom as well as participation in teacher-directed group discussions.  These lucky students also got to go on a field trip—a rare hands-on, authentic experience.

The projects and reenactments required students to put what they had learned into practice, and to collaborate to build what they had seen and learned about. The creativity was there in every thing they constructed.  Critical thinking was evident in their use of their creations and as play continued, in communicating to revamp the ways they used the materials, and in the “scripts” they developed.

The more students buy into this type of hands-on learning, the more they add.  Those that have traveled bring their experiences and share it, mimicking the various workers they came into contact with.  Did you see them checking passports?  What about the captain at the beginning of the flight discussing turbulence?  You can bet they spent time discussing what that word meant, and perhaps even acting it out.  These experiences and activity-specific vocabulary build knowledge.  I bet every kid in that classroom can explain the how and why of security checks, and the purpose of a passport.  They also spent time counting passengers, writing, reading…the list goes on!

In real-world situations and in business, there is often more than one right answer or solution to a problem or situation.  This is certainly noticeable in the STEM subject professions—science, technology, engineering, and math.  The reality is that these subjects demand a great deal of creativity.  The high achievers in these fields, often thought of as  “geeks” or “nerds,” are actually some of the world’s most creative thinkers.  They are the ones who wonder “what if….” and come up with new approaches and solutions to problems, and new inventions.

So what do we do to help our students be more prepared, creative, and yes, competitive, in the real world?  Where are the new ideas and products going to come from?  How can we help students be globally competitive in STEM subject areas as well as in real-world experiences?  Project-based learning of course!

PBL may look or feel chaotic at first, but with proper planning, these cross-curricular, group-centered activities meet a myriad of standards while allowing students time to hone 21st century skills including the all important 4Cs—Critical Thinking, Creativity and Innovation, Collaboration, and Communication. What’s more, many teachers find that when students’ increased engagement in meaningful (to them), hands-on PBL tasks there are fewer discipline issues—now who doesn’t want a focused classroom filled with enthusiastic learners!

Project-based Learning—Where to start?


(www.edutopia.org) offers many insights into PBL in the form of articles, discussions, blogs, and shared ideas from educators.  The video you just watched can be found on their site too!

Ted ED-Lessons Worth Sharing

(www.ed.ted.com) offers an array of lessons that be customized to suit individual classroom needs.  Use the videos for ideas or present them directly to students.

You Tube for Schools


Buck Institute for Education

(www.bie.org) walks you through PBL and offers examples of PBL lessons and videos to use to get started.

Also, check out the article, Bringing STEM Into Focus by Jean Moon and Susan Rundell Singer at Education Week